As Gigs Slowly Return, Struggling Promoters Balance Safety with Staying Afloat

Back in March, Shawn Reynaldo took an in-depth look at COVID’s impact on our scene. Seven months later, Reynaldo checks in with promoters, bookers, and festival organizers to understand the roadblocks they face and how they’ve had to adapt to this new reality, in this second chapter of a three-part series.

22 min
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Oct 8, 2020
Shawn Reynaldo

Before the coronavirus hit, Dave Harvey was excited about Love International. The festival’s programming had been expanded, major improvements had been made to the site in Croatia and tickets were selling fast. “This year, it was the year where we were like, ‘Right, all the planets have aligned,'” says the festival co-founder.

It’s a sentiment shared by Pierre-Marie Oullion, Artistic Director of Arty Farty, an organization that oversees the long-running Nuits Sonores festival in Lyon and also handles programming for the city’s Le Sucre nightclub. “Tickets for Nuits Sonores were selling better than they ever have before,” he says.

Many booking agents were feeling optimistic too. After three years of building the business and paying off debts, Dominik Ceylan, the Managing Director of Berlin-based agency Temporary Secretary, envisioned 2020 as a profitable year, led by some of his biggest clients. “Dixon was completely booked out for 2020,” he says. “Gerd Janson, I would say 90 percent, and Âme, also 80 to 90 percent.”

Once the virus went global, things began to quickly change. Between late February and early March, clubs closed, festivals were postponed or cancelled altogether, and the industry began to scramble. Rescheduling gigs for late in the year was part of that, but as the pandemic stretched on, an air of absurdity crept into the practice. “We’ve had to reschedule some dates three times now,” says Luke James, the head of programming and promotions for Patterns, a club in Brighton. “Everyone was being quite optimistic when it first happened and they were like, ‘Oh, we’ll move it all to October.’ Then it was like, ‘Oh, we’ll move over to February.’ And now it seems like April is the new kind of go-to.”

The financial impact of the pandemic has been more consequential, especially as promoters and agents were suddenly left to chase refunds and attempt to minimize losses. Temporary Secretary, for instance, saw one of its travel agents file for bankruptcy, resulting in a loss of thousands of euros — not just for the agency, but also for its artists and several promoters. Nuits Sonores claims to have lost about 70,000 euros on non-refundable artist-related expenses (flights, booking fees, accommodation, backline, etc.), a figure that doesn’t include even larger sunk costs for staff and promotion, or factor in the millions of euros in lost revenue. Private insurance, even for big festivals, has largely been of no help, as few people had anticipated the need for pandemic coverage.

Then there’s the issue of maintaining payroll. It’s been easier in Europe, where many governments have stepped in with furlough programs, subsidizing salaries to help prevent layoffs. While these programs haven’t helped everyone — freelancers and contract workers, not to mention DJs, are most likely to have found themselves with little or no income — among salaried employees, industry layoffs have been relatively limited. That said, if furlough programs, many of which are due to expire, aren’t extended in the months ahead, mass layoffs will be unavoidable for many.

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Additional assistance programs vary greatly across borders, but in Berlin for example, €5,000 grants were available to individual freelancers, while small businesses could apply for up to €15,000. In Switzerland, Guy Blattmann, founder and owner of Basel’s Elysia nightclub, received a 10,000 franc grant from the government, along with a low-risk, five-year loan equal to 10 percent of his company’s gross revenue from last year. “Everybody could go to their banks,” he explains, “get this 10 percent by filling out a form, and if you cannot pay back the money, the state will cover it.”

Irrespective of what governments are doing, a spirit of cooperation has arisen within industry circles and the larger electronic music community. Love International, for example, anticipated widespread refund requests from folks planning to attend this year’s festival, but nearly 70 percent of people elected to hold onto their ticket for 2021. Promoters and agents are also working together, with many settling into a de facto arrangement in which artist deposits are being refunded while booking fees are being retained by the agency, with an agreement that gigs will eventually be rescheduled at no additional cost. It’s not ideal for anyone, as promoters have paid for a service that may never be realized (or at least won’t be realized soon), and booking agents are effectively agreeing to double their workload for free, but these compromises have been forged to help keep everyone afloat. “I’ve found that the whole industry — artists, agents, management, everyone — obviously at times there can be friction or differing desires,” says Love International’s Harvey, “but everyone on this has been really united and just accepted the fact that [putting on events] isn’t safe for everybody. It’s a heartbreaking thing that we all had to accept.”

Safety, however, has been a more difficult thing for the industry to agree upon, especially once some countries began to open up during July and August. As videos surfaced on social media of DJs playing to packed (and frequently unmasked) crowds, critics took aim at artists who were playing these events, which some online and in the media began to refer to as “plague raves.” Although many of these events were technically legal, they did leave booking agents in a difficult position. “I see some of these events where it’s so good to see artists in a DJ booth again and people on the dancefloor,” says Andrew Kelsey, President of North American booking agency Liaison Artists. “At the same time, the distancing isn’t there, half the people aren’t wearing masks, or at least they’re not over their noses — it’s hard to watch without thinking that this is going to end up with more spread.”

“We didn’t book any show where it was obvious [ahead of time] that people were not obeying the health and safety limitations,” says Temporary Secretary’s Ceylan. “We had one or two shows where this happened and we addressed it with the promoter and he was like, ‘Well, we tried. The police were there and everything was good, but that’s what it looked like [on social media].’ I myself got upset that people were doing this because the more we do this, the longer everything will be shut down.”

In recent weeks, countries like Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the UK have all re-tightened event restrictions following partial reopenings, but parties (both legal and illegal) are still happening, leaving agents and promoters alike to try and navigate the “right” course of action, both morally and financially. “We have governments who are trying their best to come up with safety rules for a pandemic where they are inexperienced, just like we are inexperienced,” says Ceylan. “For me personally, I go by the promoter’s proposal and what is allowed by law, and I hope that the government is putting rules in place which are more strict than they need to be, in order to have safe events and safe traveling. I feel that events can be safe as long they are outdoors.”

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“With regards to [DJs] traveling, of course, I can understand how people think this is not needed,” he continues. “But everyone is flying to their holiday destinations and going to restaurants and doing all these things. And then you have an outdoor event where you can track every customer, where you have tracing apps, etc. — I don’t think that’s any more dangerous.”

Blattmann, whose Elysia venue opened in a limited fashion back in June, feels similarly. Although initially allowed to only host daytime, open-air events in the upstairs bar area — some of which featured artists like Marcel Dettmann and Ben Klock — the downstairs club resumed operations in September, playing host to DJs like Dr. Rubinstein, Laurel Halo and object blue. (Acts like Hunee, Antal, AnD and Sebastian Mullaert are on the docket for October.) At first, contact tracing was required for everyone entering the club, but that’s since been changed to social distancing and a mask requirement. He’s also voluntarily capped Elysia’s capacity at 250 people, and all bar and security staff are masked. Blattmann isn’t sure yet if the club is making a profit again, but turnout has been solid and many clubbers are showing up early, just to make sure that they can get in. (That’s especially true for those coming from across the border, as Basel is close to both France and Germany.)

“We cannot decide on our own about how dangerous COVID is, what the correct strategy is for the state and what it’s going to be in a year or two years,” he says. “That’s not our decision. Like everyone, we’re trying to keep up our business. The danger [of the virus] is there as soon as you go outside your door. You could ask these questions to the people that do any kind of business, and I don’t think that doing events in our venue right now is a big risk.”

Over in Berlin, several venues have been holding fully licensed, open-air events in which masks are required. A new club, Revier Südost, has even opened up in the past few weeks. Run by the same team who previously operated Griessmüehle, the early response has been positive, though the club has already faced difficulties it would have never even considered in the pre-COVID era. Franklin De Costa, who runs the Mother’s Finest party and label and is also part of the Revier Südost booking team, explains that even managing the line to get into the club can be an issue. “You can’t have people waiting too long, as the queue gets too long,” he says. “There’s no use in having a hundred people lined up close together in front of the venue. That’s also [the venue’s] responsibility.” Adding to the difficulty of the situation is the fact that not all venues are strictly adhering to the rules. And then there are the illegal, unlicensed parties, which often flout health and safety guidelines altogether. Still, Revier Südost seems determined to try and make a go of it legally, even after an event there was cancelled last weekend — on short notice — to protect everyone’s “well being and health.”

Following health and safety guidelines means reducing capacities while increasing security and staffing levels, and promoters have had to increase door prices to make things feasible. “Of course people are not happy, and people don’t have money, but it’s also a smaller crowd now,” says De Costa. “Also the tourists, the usual party tourists coming to Berlin who are used to higher door prices, there are a lot less of them. But people adapt and we’ll see if the prices stay this way next year because people will be used to them. It will be interesting to see, but for now, it’s necessary to charge 20 euros instead of 16 or 17.”

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Artists too are having to be flexible financially, namely by accepting lower fees. Blattmann says that during the summer, when Switzerland was one of the few places where parties were legally happening, artists approached Elysia specifically offering to play at a significantly reduced price. And while booking agents are hesitant to specifically come out and say that artists are now playing for a discount, it’s clear that there’s now a lot more willingness to negotiate and work with promoters. “If you have a festival where 50,000 people are coming for a higher ticket price, and the same promoter is now putting on a show for 300 people with a 10 euro entrance, you can’t ask for the same amount of money,” says Temporary Secretary’s Ceylan. “As long as it is explainable and reasonable, artists will play for lower fees. It all depends on the show. It’s not, ‘Okay, that’s the fee you have to pay.’ It’s looking at the numbers together with a promoter, seeing what’s possible and what’s not possible, and then coming up with a fair — and safe — solution.”

It’s unclear whether these changes are temporary or something more permanent, but in the meantime, most industry folks are primarily concerned about simply surviving the next few months. COVID case numbers are rising, new government restrictions are on the horizon in many places and the winter is looming in the Northern Hemisphere, which could put an end to open-air events. In Brighton, Patterns’ basement nightclub remains shut, and has little hope of opening anytime soon, especially now that the UK has announced a new round of restrictions that could be in place for the next six months or longer. For the past couple of months, the venue has tried to stay active; dancing isn’t allowed, but patrons can reserve socially-distanced tables in the bar (each table is limited to six people) and listen to music provided by local DJs and artists. “We’re currently running at 20 percent of our usual capacity,” says James, Patterns’ head booker. “A lot of the reason we are open is to try and get things moving — for the community, for bringing electronic artists to Brighton, which no one else is doing.”

Unfortunately though, that goal stands to become even harder thanks to a new rule that prohibits playing pre-recorded music louder than 85 decibels. There’s a certain logic to the policy — anything above 85 decibels requires people to raise their voice when speaking, which increases the risk of viral transmission — but it’s not ideal for maintaining a vibey atmosphere. “It just seems to get harder and harder each time they add something else,” says James. “We have very few options to try and make some money to stay afloat, and it just seems like they’re making it more and more difficult by the week.” And with the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak now seemingly suggesting that the country’s musicians and other creatives start looking for other kinds of work, the situation is starting to feel particularly hopeless.

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Of course, government indifference to musicians and nightlife isn’t unique to the UK, and the organizers of Nuits Sonores are taking action, spearheading a new pan-European cultural initiative called reset! that seeks to unite independent cultural organizations and amplify their voice in public policy circles. “We have to find, with politicians, a way to exist under the COVID situation,” says Artistic Director Oullion. “It’s not the right move to just close everything and not give us the authorization to exist. In fact, it could be massively dangerous because you will have a lot of unauthorized and dangerous parties everywhere.”

Oullion is committed to change, both at Le Sucre (whenever it’s allowed to re-open) and at Nuits Sonores, which has been rescheduled for 2021. At the club, he wants to shift away from big headliners and the agent-induced bidding wars that booking them often requires, and refocus on local talent from Lyon. As for the festival, he’s looking at a major overhaul, both in terms of the lineup and the event’s guiding philosophy. “The post-COVID world won’t be the same,” he says, “so the festival can’t be the same. That would be nonsense. For the next edition, we want to reshape the festival entirely. Decreasing and downsizing is something that’s really important for next year. The key word for me would be less — less technology, fewer flights, fewer white men on stage. I think we are in a kind of emergency now, and as the end of lockdown has shown us, people in every business are already starting to do the same things they did before. I think our role in society is to say, ‘No, we don’t want to do the same thing as before.'”

There’s an inherent optimism to that viewpoint, and optimism is something that many of Oullion’s colleagues seem to share, even in the face of uncertainty. When Dave Harvey thinks about Love International, a festival where approximately 80 percent of the audience comes from outside Croatia to attend, he knows that there are a lot of boxes to tick before the event can go forward: “People being able to travel, there not being a quarantine, flights being operational and available, and not having skyrocketed in price. It largely depends on the wider logistics of getting two-and-a-half thousand people to Croatia.”

Depending how things go, that could be a tall order, but Harvey is determined to make it happen, even if he has to wait until 2022. “The event itself is part of my bloody heart,” he says, “so I’m not going to entertain the idea that it’s not going to be back. It’s a really magical thing. I think it’s got enough of a following and enough love from the audience that we will survive.”

This is part of a series on the effects of coronavirus on the dance music industry. Read part one here. We’ll bring you part three soon.

Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance journalist and editor based in Barcelona. Author of the weekly First Floor newsletter, he was a longtime contributor to RBMA, previously served as Editor in Chief at XLR8R, and has also written for places like Pitchfork, NPR, Resident Advisor, DJ Mag, Bandcamp, and Electronic Beats. Find him on Twitter.

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